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Shakespeare did write Lear; what is more, he was a Catholic

Sir Derek Jacobi is wrong to think that Shakespeare could not have written his own plays; the greatest poet and dramatist of all times was an Englishman and a Catholic

By on Friday, 7 January 2011

A detail from a painting believed to be an authentic image of the writer made from life. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

A detail from a painting believed to be an authentic image of the writer made from life. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The actor Sir Derek Jacobi is currently acting the part of King Lear to great critical acclaim at the Donmar Warehouse. I must get to see it before the production closes just to see if he gets my personal imprimatur or not. But there is one matter on which I cannot agree with Sir Derek: the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Apparently the knighted thespian takes a benighted view on this one: that a semi-educated country boy from Stratford couldn’t possibly have written the works of genius attributed to him.

Indeed, Jacobi has publicly declared, “The only evidence of Shakespeare’s literary life was produced after he died and is open to dispute. Nothing, apart from some shaky signatures, puts a pen in his hand. Legend, hearsay and myth have created this writer.”

This is bilge and balderdash, stuff and nonsense. But rather than rehearse his arguments at second-hand, may I direct readers of this blog to an excellent book, Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University. Shapiro demolishes all the far-fetched and tendentious theories advocated by Jacobi and others – Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain among them – who are too intellectually contorted to see the obvious: that if you are a genius you don’t have to experience at first-hand everything you write about; you use your imagination. After all, Shakespeare did not have to commit murder to be able to write Macbeth; nor did he have to go mad in order to write King Lear.

I understand that Jacobi was a grammar school boy. Presumably it delivered him a decent education. Why should Shakespeare be thought of as a country bumpkin when it is known that he enjoyed the rigours of an Elizabethan grammar school education in Stratford? Obviously, as a youth of preternatural poetic sensibility, he did not over-exert himself with the heavily classical syllabus; ‘little Latin and less Greek’, according to his friend Ben Jonson. Luckily there was no TV in those days, so that instead of slumping on the sofa, young William got much of his wisdom from the university of life.

Well, as I am sure readers will agree with me, I hardly need to preach to the converted. Just one other thing: the greatest poet and dramatist of all time (you can keep your Racine and your Goethe) was an Englishman – and a Catholic. I will readily admit that the evidence for this is disputed (unlike the authorship of the plays for 200 years after his death.) Shapiro does not go into this; he is simply concerned that prove that Shakespeare wrote the plays. But there is still enough contributory knowledge of his childhood influences, his family milieu and his acting circle to make his religious beliefs more than a conjecture. His parents were devout Catholics; so were his school masters; so were many of his friends, his acting troupe and his patrons. (Fr Peter Milward SJ has written about Catholic aspects in the plays themselves.)

Shapiro surmises that one of the reasons there is so little biographical documentation about Shakespeare during his life is that, as the follower of an outlawed faith (he did not want to be hanged, drawn and quartered after all, and who can blame him) he destroyed the evidence. Peter Ackroyd’s biography discusses this question in greater depth, as does Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay, which suggests that the plays are crammed with coded allusions for Shakespeare’s co-religionists.

At any rate, the dramatist is not the atheist that modern (atheist) scholars would have him be, Jonathan Bate and director Richard Eyre among them. Just because they inhabit a bleak, post-modern, Darwinian universe there is no reason to drag Shakespeare along with them. Yes – he could pretend to be a pagan and a cynic, as in the Roman plays, and convey every other position as he chose. But that is the power of his imaginative capacity. To throw out a final intriguing thought for sceptical Sir Derek: is Shakespeare really buried in Stratford parish church?

I have read a most plausible argument by the late Hugh Ross Williamson that suggests the enigmatic words on his tomb – “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear/to dig the dust enclosed here/blest be the man that spares these stones/ and curst be he that moves these bones” – were deliberately composed to stop people opening up the coffin. Why? Because as a loyal though secret Catholic, Shakespeare wanted the Church’s last rites and a Catholic burial – and not to lie in a Protestant church.

  • Anthony

    Yes, and there is the secondary source testimony of 17th century Gloucestershire clergyman Richard Davies that he “dyed a papist”, presumably because he too had heard that Shakespeare had received the last rites from a Catholic priest, a conviction unlikely to have been held had Shakespeare been known to have been a conforming Protestant.

    And there are intriguing details concerning his marriage to Anne Hathaway in Temple Grafton, for which a special licence was granted that gives Shakespeare’s surname correctly but that of his bride as Whately. They both lived in the parish of Stratford (Anne in Shottery and William in the town), and the law obliged couples to marry in either party’s home parish, but they chose not to, and the licence gives Anne’s place of residence as Temple Grafton. Now at that time the vicar at Holy Trinity,Stratford, was Henry Haycroft, a staunch Protestant, whereas John Frith over at Temple Grafton was anything but, described as he was in a government report a few years after the wedding as “an old priest and Unsound in religion”, being accused of ‘papistry’.

    One of Shakespeare’s cousins on his mother’s side of the family was St. Robert Southwell, the Jesuit martyr whose poems were considered among the finest of the age. Southwell, whose ‘The Burning Babe’ (admired by Ben Jonson) finds echoes in lines in Macbeth, wrote a letter addressed to ‘my loving and good cosin’ and ‘to my worthy good cosen Maister W.S.’ which was used as a preface to a collection of his poems that circulated in manuscript in the 1590s (he was hanged, drawn and quartered in1595). In it he acknowledges his cousin as the finer poet who encouraged him to publish his own work, and urges him to write the spiritual poetry that “rests in your will”.

    One can but imagine the impact on a man of Shakespeare’s sensibilities of the horrors of the Elizabethan spy-state, to say nothing of the butchery of his cousin: Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear with their themes of usurpation, betrayal, treachery and blood-curdling inhumanity are what followed before the relative calm of the later Jacobean plays. Then, in the spring of 1613, after he had retired to Stratford and just three years before his death, he purchased in London a property at Blackfriars – suspected by the Elizabethan priest-catchers to have been a Catholic ‘safe house’ – adjacent to the theatre for which he had worked along with Ben Jonson. the previous owners were recusants The place was probably still being used as a safe house some years later when a Catholic priest and 90 members of a congregation of 300 died after the upstairs chamber of a neighbouring building collapsed. This same property is included in Shakespeare’s will as having a tenant by the name of John Robinson (the same name is given as a witness to the will), which happens not only to be the surname of one of the previous owner’s stewards but also of a young priest then in London known to have subsequently become a Jesuit.

    On the matter of education, the rigours of Elizabethan grammar-schooling would test all but the best of today’s university students: “small Latin and less Greek” indeed! As for Mr. Jacobi’s comments, I again prefer to trust the classically erudite Ben Jonson (hardly a man known to suffer fools – or charlatans – gladly!) who came back to the King’s Men after Shakespeare’s company took over the Blackfriars:

    To the memory of my beloved,
    The AUTHOR
    what he hath left us

  • GFFM

    Derek Jacobi of course is wrong as are other British actors who say the same about Shakespeare’s authorship. I’ve often thought it was a class thing and a kind of fear by many in the humanities professions of genius and human creativity coming from the typical circumstances of a Warwickshire family. The greatest writer in the world couldn’t have come from normalcy and have such insight into the human soul. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s greatness has become something to worship and so some of his authorial failings are glossed over. He is by no means a perfect writer. Yet, his insight is supremely human and he possesses it from a variety of vantage points. An aristocrat living in the late 16th and early 17th centuries could not have seen life from such a variety of perspectives. Lear, especially, makes this abundantly clear.

  • Anonymous

    An excellent article. There’s really not a lot I can add to what GFFM and Anthony have said below, (far from it – I learned a lot from their posts) except to say that I am always instantly suspicious of those who make a career out of casting doubt on the authenticity of authorship, whether it be biblical authorship or Shakespeare’s writings.

    And I think it is beyond question that Shakespeare was a Catholic. As the blog author rightly points out, with the likelihood of being hung, drawn and quartered keeping him awake at night, it’s no surprise that dear old William didn’t go about the place wearing one of those “I’m a Papist” T shirts sold on the black market at the time…

  • Anthony

    … or tread the boards as a contestant in the original stage performances of “I’m A Catholic, Get Me Out Of Here!”

  • Anonymous

    Exactly! Hilarious!

  • Anthony

    Exactly, on all counts.

  • deerpark

    Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (CofE), situated at purposefully at Ephesus, site of the veneration of Virgin Mary ( and Artemis) is , to my mind, a mocking commentary on the Anglican, reformed church:” families and brothers divided, finally being reunited under the guide of an Abbess in the final scene .

  • CJ

    Sorry, folks, but being a Catholic–even an openly practicing Catholic–wasn’t a capital offense in Elizabethan England. It could get you fined heavily, but not hanged, drawn and quartered. What could get you HD&Q’d was treason–as in attempting to assassinate or depose the Queen, or to sneak into the country and encourage her subjects to do so.

  • Marie Merkel

    Regrettably, James Shapiro seems to shy away from the “Catholic Bard” question in “Contested Will”. His mission, after all, is to show the general public the folly of expecting Shakespeare’s works to reflect his life, and to dissuade his fellow scholars from the temptations of biographical speculation. But scholars like John Klause (Shakespeare, the Earl and the Jesuit, 2008) and Frank Brownlow (Shakespeare, Harsnett, and the Devils of Denham, 1993) are surely on the right track, along with others who’ve found evidence of Papist sympathies within the works.

    One of the most intriguing plays in this regard in Titus Andronicus. A few years ago, I discovered an intertextual connection between a speech from the old warrior Titus and the funeral monument of Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk. Readers of this blog may recognize the potential for subversive commentary this embedded identity would provide, given the Howard family’s Catholic roots, and the death of Thomas, 4th duke of Norfolk, for attempting to marry the Catholic Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart. At about the time that Titus was first shown onstage – according to Ben Jonson – Philip Howard (St. Philip) was condemned for treason, due mostly to his refusal to abjure his Catholic faith. My article in The Oxfordian, Vol. 12, “Titus Andronicus and the Treasonous House of Howard” gives the details of this discovery, with an overview of its relevance to the question of Shakespeare’s religion.

    Edward de Vere, the man whom Derek Jacobi believes may have written the bulk of Shakespeare’s works, would have understood every nuance of the underground Catholic world. Not only was he first cousin to the executed duke of Norfolk, and related as well to Robert Southwell, he was himself a secret Catholic, one who had the means and will to convey priests in and out of the country, until something spooked him in 1581, and he publicly abjured his faith. He would have known all about what happened to the Catholic Wisemans, whom he had dealings with in the 1580s, and the Vaux family, who were his neighbors in Hackney.

  • Anthony

    Dear CJ,

    “… or to sneak into the country and encourage her subjects to do so”:

    Forgive me if I am wrong, but your objection has about it the whiff of what Chesterton and Belloc in the past and, latterly, Duffy, Haigh, Scarisbrick and other ‘revisionists’ (so-called) would recognize as susceptibility to what used to be called the Whig reading of history – not least in the implied assumption that the majority of Elizabeth’s subjects were unequivocally Protestant. Moreover, the derogatory inference of “to sneak” cannot obscure the fact that the (usually) young Catholics who had left England to return as priests were returning to the land of not only their birth, but that of the ancestors of their fellow-countrymen and women, too – most of whom were indeed country-folk far removed from the more overtly political machinations of life in London and the Elizabethan court where England’s (today fading?) Protestant foundation myth has its origins.

    Of course, what they returned to was the spy-state ruthlessly policed by Burghley and what we might now call party-apparatchiks, with its network of government informers that flourished under Elizabeth, so they had no option but to go underground, as the very fact of their choosing ordination while abroad – in order to be able to minister to those up and down the country who were secretly (out of repeated financial necessity) adhering to the ‘Old Faith’ back home – meant the death penalty if caught by the state-remunerated priest-catchers (bounty-hunters by any other name, whose modern counterparts are to be found in the histories of Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, Moaist China, McCarthyite USA, Apartheid South Africa, Cambodia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, etc., etc., etc.).

    If you will allow, a contextualized digression may be in order:

    At the time of her reign, most of Mary Tudors subjects would have been nonplussed by the clichéd ‘Bloody Mary’ representations that four centuries of subsequent historical hegemony has complacently contrasted the Elizabethan protestant ascendancy with, and so should we, if only in view of the fact that the father of both of them, Henry VIII, the ‘good King Hal’ who broke with Rome, had 72,000 of his subjects executed compared to less than 300 during Mary’s reign. Of course, the killing of adversaries by the state (and the burning of those considered guilty of treason) was hardly extraordinary anywhere in the 16th century, and a more objective reading of history shows that Mary was comparatively merciful: burnings in her reign began in earnest when particular forms of Protestantism became synonymous with treason, just as persisting in ministering to Roman Catholics (hardly optional for a true priest of the Faith) and the assistance of priests by a lay-person would be under Elizabeth.

    In this respect, moreover, the protestant reign of ‘good Queen Bess’, who reaped the political profits from targeting every parish church in the land with a government-sponsored copy of the dedicated Protestant propaganda of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was, on a scale comparable to their father’s, arguably more of a chip off the old tyrant’s block: not only were influential Catholic ‘recusants’ and priests (for both of whom gruesome new forms of torture and killing – particularly hanging, drawing and quartering – were devised) routinely arrested and executed, but following the 1569 Northern Rebellion, Elizabeth ordered that a man was to be hanged in every village associated with the rebellions.

    So I hope you can understand why I feel that, if casually employed, terms like ‘treason’, ‘sneak’, ‘encourage’, and ‘her subjects’ can, in this context, leave one with the unfortunate impression that here is a history (albeit unconsciously perpetuated) that is still seemingly being dictated by the winners.

  • ryan

    Shakespeare didnt write those plays it was someone else called Shakespeare!

  • Anthony

    … a couple of corrections to my penultimate paragraph above (sorry!):

    1. The third line should read “…was, though not on a scale comparable to their father’s, arguably…” etc.

    2.The parenthesis in brackets (5th line) should read “- particularly in the context of hanging, drawing and quartering -”

    By the way, figures for the 1569 rebellion alone are in excess of 800, and even conservative estimates for Henry VIII’s reign are in excess of 50,000.

  • Sr Sandals

    Bravo – you mention Clare Asquith’s excellent book where she reveals Shakespeare’s startling ability to convey two entirely different meanings for two different audiences at the same time using the same words: one meaning to keep the Protestant brutal & ruthless ‘police state’ happy and throw them off the trail, and the other to subversively appeal & reassure Catholics that all was not yet lost. This extraordinary ability makes Shakespeare’s skill as a writer even more worthy of praise (as if that’s possible), and was only stumbled upon when the author (Asquith) was living in the USSR (I think her husband was a British diplomat at the time) and noticed the same sort of ‘techniques’ used in Russian theatre to appeal above the heads of the KGB agents sitting on the end of each row of seats, whilst at the same time satisfying them that nothing was untoward.

    Another writer who detects this and is an incomparable reader of Shakespeare (who in turn has ‘read’ us all pretty well hasn’t he?) is Rene Girard. His “A Theatre of Envy” concurs with Asquith’s findings, to such a degree that he thinks its only the “Government/KGB” understanding of the plays that has survived to the present day! Often the plotting of the plays, which some label as a weakness in his writing, only begins to make more sense when the plays are read with the two audiences in mind, remembering that Shakespeare was the only playwright of his time who seemed to avoid the assassinations, torture and lynchings of his contemporaries. It was a high-wire act par excellence.

    However, it is Girard’s discovery of what it is that makes Shakespeare so good that is truly eye-opening. Shakespeare’s subject is always ‘imitative desire’, a desire that features centre stage in all his works, propels all the action, and is in effect its own theory of human behaviour – a theory that states that we are not the ‘individuals’ we think we are but are doomed to a suggestibility and a susceptibility to others deepest desires, which we catch in the blink of an eye like a lethal contagion. We covet and take for our own the desires of our ‘models’, our imitation is not skin deep but goes to our very souls, and because (like young children wanting the same toy at the same time) this often leads to serious conflict, we usually end up becoming ‘obstables’ to the very fulfillment of these same desires. His comedy “Midsummer Night’s Dream” spells this out quite cynically but it runs through all his plays. Of course imitative desire, or mimeticism, which Shakespeare often simply labels “envy”, is not new, but properly understood it holds the mirror up to nature in a mind-altering way and reveals that old chestnut Original Sin in all its glory, a concept which which most of us are too proud/modern to wish to have anything but ridicule and contempt for.

    I cannot conceive of any valid production of any of Shakespeare’s plays not taking into account these two books, since they cause a serious change to how many of the plays are read. Whilst being cautious about extra-textual biographical details, Girard’s reading of Shakespeare makes it possible to really get under the skin of the works and encounter Shakespeare’s ‘intent’ as an artist, a poet, a Catholic, as well as a highly experienced man of the theatre:

    “It is an error to believe that intentions are irretrievable. Ever since the old New Critics, interpreters have dismissed the intentions of poets as inaccessible, even as inconsequential. As far as the theatre is concerned, this is disastrous. A comic writer has comic effects in mind, and unless we understand them we cannot stage the work effectively.” Girard; A Theatre of Envy

  • Martin

    What is unequivocal is that the biggest influence bar none on the culture of England for nearly one thousand years (and for over 12 hundred years in Europe) prior to Shakespeare’s time had been the Catholic faith.

    Since of course, literature in England has the poorer become.

  • Hythloday

    What if he was both a Protestant and a Catholic? Obviously not simultaneously, but as for so many alive, as well as those attested on record throughout history, conversion happens, more often than not, multiple times in a life. It is no stretch to understand that Shakespeare was a great pragmatist, and so, with all that can be surmised, I wonder if he did not try both out throughout his life? He used a Geneva Bible, which is indisputable prodigy of Tyndale, Cromwell, and Luther. He was heavily influenced my Montaigne, of which, was a great skeptic. So his family and friends were Catholic, not compelling, since their was so much Religious schitzo-phrenia happening in the Tudor dynasty, we never really encounter the possibility if John Shakespeare was ever in Cromwell zone, so to speak, having to weigh one way or another on hiding his faith. Though the mere possibility does offer a great idea that it was Henry VIII’s flip-flopping and The Act of Succession was not direct inspiration for ‘The Merchant of Venice’, being it would have been culturally and politically appealing to have such a play grandstand the forced conversion of a jew, rather than a catholic, even in Elizabethan ‘Golden Age’. In addition, the character of Wolsey in Henry VIII is so richly Machiavellian, one wonders if Shakespeare deliberately highlighted him for the sake of infecting the audiences with “this is what the Catholic church is really all about” in a ‘King James Version’ realm. My final thought is: being a Catholic in Reformation England/Europe was nothing like being a Catholic in 21st-century Pope Benedict America/Europe. The mere example of Benedict XVI essentially ‘acquitting’ the Jews for any culpability with the death of Christ is unimaginable in those days. There is no way Clement VIII or Paul V would have considered the notion, especially since the papacy was soon gearing up condemning people like Galileo, just after finishing up roasting Giordono Bruno.
    Even though most of my points favor Shakespeare being a Protestant, I will consider, in the spirit of the bard, in being pragmatic and suggesting he considered himself both throughout the course of his life. From a scholarly perspective, it’s important to search, but from a spiritual point it’s more important to know he was a Christian.

  • Hythloday

    Really, the poorer? I must contend. Post-Shakespeare: John Milton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Mary Shelly, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, G.K. Chesterton, Winston Churchill, Jonathan Swift, William Blake, Robert Harris, George Orwell? Not all can be Shakespeare, in fact, that is still arguable to this day, isn’t it: can anyone? That should not mean we dismiss the giants in English literature because they all live in the shadows of the titan of all literature.